ZEKHER LAMIQDASH: Remembering Yerushalayim when hosting a meal

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We have previously explained that the Sages who lived during the generation of the Bet haMiqdash instituted certain traditions related to grief, to help us remember during moments of celebration, that our Bet-haMiqdash is still in ruins. We have mentioned for example the custom of placing ashes on the head of the bridegroom; leaving an unfinished segment of a wall of the new house , etc.

Today we will see another example of these traditions, a custom lesser known, and which in many communities has fallen into oblivion.

Rambam writes the following (H. Ta’aniyot 5:13).

וכן התקינו שהעורך שולחן לעשות סעודה לאורחים מחסר ממנו מעט ומניח מקום פנוי בלא קערה מן הקערות הראויות לתת לשם

“Likewise, [our Sages] decreed that when we have guests for a meal, when setting the table, we should leave some food out, and we should leave a free space [at the table], instead of the tray that we would normally place there. “

We will explain some details of this Halacha to understand it better:

1. This practice is limited to meals of celebration, where we host guests, and does not refer to our regular daily meals.

2. Meals on Shabbat or Jewish holidays are excluded from this practice, since on Shabbat and Yom Tob we cannot manifest any sign of grief.

3. There is a discussion among the rabbis if a festive meal for a personal religious celebrations (se’udot Mitsva, such as Berit Mila, Bar Mitzvah, etc.) are or are not included within this practice. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed and others hold that these meals are included. According to Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu z”l and other rabbis, they are not.

4. When indicating our obligation to remember the Bet haMiqdash, our Sages evidently did not want us to have a very visible demonstration of mourning when hosting a meal, but something that, while meaningful, is still discreet and indirect: the absence of a meal. The problem, and possibly the reason why this tradition has fallen into disuse, is the difficulties related to how to carry out this practice today, expressing our longing for the Bet HaMiqdash through this subtle gesture.

Let me explain: the way to present, display and serve food has changed a lot since the time of the Mishna (Centuries I and II). In the times in which this decree was established, there was a closed protocol in terms of food presentation: how many meals were served and how the table was to be set. At that time, therefore, it was possible for the guests to realize that there is a meal “missing from the table”, and recognizing this particular gesture as the subtle way of expressing that our private celebration, without the Bet haMiqdash, could not be complete.

Over time the number and type of meals served at a party changed, and it became more difficult (or impossible) to identify that a meal was missing. Then, as Maimonides says, this gesture was expressed primarily by leaving a section of the table without food. At the time of Maimonides, for example, this could be still identified as a sensitive manifestation of grief.

Today, there are such a variety of dishes and so many different ways to prepare and set a table, that it would be impossible for our guests to recognize by themselves the absence of a special dish. Or being aware that there is an empty place in this or that section of the table as a gesture of mourning.

Now, since this decree was indicated by the Sages (and it is not just a popular tradition), many contemporary Rabbis consider it appropriate that we keep practicing this tradition, even in a way that it would be recognizable only by the hosts. For example, if the host plans to prepare various types of food to entertain her guests, and then, in memory of the Bet haMiqdash, she should decide not to prepare or serve one of those meals. She could also leave an empty corner at the table when the food is served as a buffet, as described by Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, although this gesture would be only recognized only by hosts. (Personally, I think that, from an educational point of view, when we are hosting a celebration we could also place a “decorative” item on the table which would discreetly remind us of Yerushalayim and the Bet haMiqdash).